Rotarian Bruce Irvine documents his inspiring visit to Watuka self-help group’s sand dam in southeast Kenya; a project funded by Easthampstead Rotary Club and supporting clubs in 2014.

After a very warm and moving welcome involving singing, dancing, smiles and laughter by the ladies of the Watuka self-help Group (SHG), we were led over to the sand dam itself where had a good look at a very solid dam set between two steep banks that were covered in dense and lush vegetation. The area had clearly recovered from the construction period in July 2014, and it was here where we were addressed by Samuel Mateevo, Chairman of the SHG.

He gave a brief history of the SHG, mentioning that they had formed in 2007 to attempt to deal with the problems they faced with droughts, the lack of water and a declining food supply. He explained that the two rivers (Rivers Kaiti and Thwake) with a reasonably reliable supply of water, were a long way from the community. The women and children spent several hours each day collecting water which was not clean/safe. He also mentioned that another significant problem was that the yield of the main crop of corn (maize) was declining - putting this down to the effects of climate change.

Samuel admitted that for the first few years they made little progress, the group unity was weak and their objectives were unclear. Everything changed in 2012 when they contacted Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), Sand Dams Worldwide’s strategic partners. ASDF helped them clarify their objectives, organise projects involving teamwork and discipline, and assisted in the strengthening of the SHG.

"6 years on, and the group are no longer fearful of the next drought, no longer are they at a loss as to how they are going to solve the problems that are trapping them in poverty, no longer are they debilitated and depressed, lacking in motivation and energy."

Bruce Irvine, Rotarian, Easthampstead Rotary Club

Samuel then listed some of the big changes of the ensuing years - the building of the sand dam in 2014, the construction of terraces, and the creation of a tree nursery. They learned about digging holes with the correct depth and spacing for saplings and that in the first year all members of the SHG were able to plant 20 trees, the next year 40 trees, and the year after 60 trees - all on their own fields. Since then, the SHG has been able to sell some of the trees, earning 1,000 Kenyan shillings for each member of the SHG.

Samuel then introduced Elizabeth, the Secretary of the SHG to tell us about more about the impacts of their sand dam. She talked about:

Water security and quality:

In the past, the women (and children) had a two hour (or more) walk each way to collect water from the nearest rivers. Usually, the queues were up to three hours long.  Now everyone in the community has access to water within 20 minutes. Moreover, the water that they are now harvesting has been tested and it meets WHO standards of cleanliness.


With safe water from the sand dam, there are now far fewer visits to the hospital. She said the incidence of water-related diseases was far less, especially typhoid and amoebas (Amoebic dysentery). Qualitative data collected from SHG member interviews also indicated that exposure to mosquitoes is now less because they aren’t travelling to areas with open water sources.


With terraces and tree planting, there was much less soil erosion which, in turn,  meant soil was being retained on the slopes and could now be improved. The water table is now rising so tree roots are once again able to reach a reliable supply of water - the vegetation is regenerating. And the presence of shade and water is leading to a return of wildlife with birds and butterflies coming back, improving biodiversity.

Agricultural techniques and crop diversity:

The SHG are now able to grow a much wider range of crops with small-scale irrigation, terracing, and the planting of trees and drought-resistant seeds. Moreover, these crops  can be harvested at different times of year improving their food security as well as a  simultaneous improvement in their diet and nutrition levels


The Watuka community is now benefiting from greatly improved hygiene practices, adopting a community-led total sanitation policy to remove open latrines (supported by ASDF), and contributing to their improved health.


With considerably less time being taken up by water collection, there has been a big change in the lifestyle of the women as well an improvement in morale, and in their status within the family and in the community.


Children also are less involved in the time-consuming chore of water collection and are now spending much more time at school improving their education. Also, with more income being generated, parents are able to pay higher school fees enabling the school to invest in better teachers, equipment and new buildings.


For the first time, the SHG have regular incomes coming in from a variety of sources associated with individual efforts selling surplus crops, fruit, eggs and chicken at the local markets as well as project related activities including the selling of water, seeds from the seed bank and tree saplings. 

Legacy and self-sustainability:

The real test of a sand dam project is its legacy after support from ASDF and Sand Dams Worldwide comes to an end. Both Elizabeth and Samuel expressed confidence that the SHG now had the leadership skills to lead the community forwards encouraging them to adopt the new methods and types of food production. They also asserted that they had the skills and resources to manage the future and any new problems that may lie ahead.

Psychological impact:

Both the ASDF staff and Samuel mentioned how the farmer of Watuka were lacking in hope, motivation and energy when they first approached ASDF in 2012. The group were aware that the yield from their main crop, maize, was steadily declining and that droughts were becoming more frequent and more severe. Being demotivated, often physically ill or debilitated, they had little drive or energy to do anything about their seemingly hopeless future, and certainly, they had no sense of direction about how to escape from their poverty trap.

When they contacted ASDF and got support from Sand Dams Worldwide to build a sand dam, which would be the all-important trigger to a whole range of changes, they found that there was a way forward. 

6 years on, and the group are no longer fearful of the next drought, no longer are they at a loss as to how they are going to solve the problems that are trapping them in poverty, no longer are they debilitated and depressed, lacking in motivation and energy. The farmers that we met were clearly joyful, proud of what they had achieved and looking forward with optimism and confidence. The SHG are also aware of their responsibilities to help the community moving forwards and are aware that new challenges lie ahead, but they now feel ready and able to be 'masters of their own destiny.'  

The impacts of a sand dam project are multifarious and dramatic. For a community that was recently in a state of desperation in so many different ways, the holistic approach of the project is clearly enabling the community to transform their lives, their economy and their environment. Indeed, they feel that they now have all the resources necessary to face their future with renewed confidence.

How Rotary and Sand Dams Worldwide are (and can) work together

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